What has the Scottish Parliament done for equality?

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As part of the programme to mark 20 years since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, SPICe has been publishing twenty “20 year” blog posts on SPICe Spotlight over the course of the last year.  This is the final blog in the series and covers 20 years of equality. Our earlier post sets out more information on the programme and the series of blogs.

Equality is at the heart of the Scottish Parliament; it is one of the four founding principles.

Successive Scottish governments have promoted equality in Scotland, and the current Government set out its broad equality agenda in the Fairer Scotland Action Plan.

But what has 20 years of having the Scottish Parliament done for equality in Scotland? Spoiler alert – the answer is mixed.

What is equality?

Equality is about ensuring that people have an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives and talents. It recognises that, historically, there are groups of people who have experienced discrimination. In Great Britain, it is against the law to discriminate people because of their protected characteristics.

SPICe_2019_Blog_Equalities_Protected Characteristics

Equality legislation

It doesn’t take much effort to look around and see that different groups of people face many barriers in achieving equality. We’ve had laws on equality since the 1970s to help counter some of these barriers, beginning with the Equal Pay Act. Having laws in place doesn’t automatically lead to equality, it can take years to challenge discrimination and win, as we saw with Glasgow City Council resolving a long-running equal pay dispute.

As a subject matter, equality is reserved to the UK, meaning that Scotland cannot make its own laws on discrimination, with a few exceptions. However, Scotland can encourage and promote equality and require Scottish public bodies to have due regard to equality.

The Equality Act 2010 harmonised all previous equality legislation, including the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. It also meant that Scotland could introduce a single equality duty for the public sector, where previously there had been separate equality duties on race, gender and disability.

The need for a public sector equality duty originally comes from the Macpherson report following the murder of Stephen Lawrence which concluded that ‘institutional racism’ exists in the police service and other services.

A general equality duty applies across the public sector in Great Britain which requires public bodies to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate discrimination
  • advance equality of opportunity
  • foster good relations between different groups of people.

In Scotland we have specific equality duties that set out in more detail what is required and when. While there has been criticism about how well the Scottish public sector meet these duties, the duties set an important benchmark for what must be achieved to combat discrimination in public services.

The Scottish Government will review the effectiveness of the specific public sector equality duty in 2020.


The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey considered discriminatory attitudes in 2015. It found that 70% of Scots would like Scotland to do everything it can to get rid of all kinds of prejudice. This figure has been relatively stable since 2002.

While there was a decline in prejudice overall, the survey still showed relatively high levels of prejudice towards some groups, such as those who have undergone gender reassignment and Gypsy/Travellers.

Now would be a good time to conduct another survey on discrimination and see if attitudes have shifted.

The Equal Opportunities/Equalities and Human Rights Committee

The Equal Opportunities Committee was set up as a mandatory committee of the Scottish Parliament in 1999:

“The Committee’s role would be to ensure a focus on equal opportunities issues relating to all the Parliament’s activities. It would set priorities, monitor progress and determine action. It would scrutinise policy and legislative proposals and implementation for equality impact. This Committee should establish a structure for close liaison with the statutory and voluntary equality bodies.”

Now called the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, it has led the way on promoting equality by scrutinising the government and monitoring its progress on achieving equality.

Back in the first session of the Parliament, the Committee set out a mainstreaming framework for other committees to think about equality within their own remits.  It has not been possible to consider the entire back catalogue of work by committees, to see how well equality has been mainstreamed in their work. However, the Coalition of Race Equality and Rights did their own assessment on race, and the results suggest that the Parliament as a whole could do a lot better on race equality.

The Equal Opportunities Committee has always had a keen interest in the Scottish Budget and the impact public spending has on different groups of people. In 2007 the Committee called for better information on policy spend that has equality implications. In response, the Scottish Government published an Equality Budget Statement in 2009 and has continued to do so ever since. While this was welcomed as a positive step, it has never been clear by reading the Equality Budget Statement what spending decisions may have been changed to avoid or mitigate any negative impact on specific groups of people.

One of the Committee’s first inquiries was on Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland. For almost 20 years the Committee has made repeated calls to improve the rights of Gypsy/Travellers to access healthcare, education and land.

Finally, in October 2019, the Scottish Government, jointly with COSLA, published a 3 year action plan to the improve the lives of Gypsy/Travellers.

This has been welcomed, but did it need to take 20 years to develop a plan of action? It seems likely that negative public attitudes may have played a part.

Advancing equality often requires attitudinal change. It is the responsibility of the Parliament and Government to both respond to attitudinal change, and to push for it to achieve equality.

How has Scotland advanced equality?

These are just a few examples…

Section 28

The first key equality debate in the Scottish Parliament concerned ‘Section 28’ or ‘Section 2A’. This was a provision in the Local Government Act 1986 that prevented the promotion of homosexuality by teaching or publishing material. It stated:

(1)  A local authority shall not—

(a)  intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;

(b)  promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

The Scottish Executive said they were considering the repeal of Section 28 at one of the first meetings of the Equal Opportunities Committee on 28 September 1999. Despite a privately funded campaign to ‘keep the clause’, the Scottish Parliament repealed Section 28 when it passed the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc (Scotland) Bill on 21 June 2000.

Equal marriage

Until 2005, there was no way for same-sex couples to have their relationship legally recognised. On 3 June 2004, the Scottish Parliament agreed by Legislative Consent Motion to the inclusion of Scottish provisions in the UK-wide Civil Partnership Bill. This meant that same-sex couples could register their partnership and have rights and responsibilities, similar to different-sex couples in a marriage.

However, civil partnerships are not the same as marriage, and attitudes began to change in favour of same-sex marriage. The Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage sparked a polarised debate, but ultimately the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 4 February 2014. The first same-sex marriage ceremonies took place on 31 December 2014.

Pardons and disregards for historical convictions of same-sex sexual activity

In 2018 the Scottish Parliament passed legislation to pardon men with a conviction for a historical same-sex sexual activity that is now legal. It also put in place a system for men with such convictions to have them removed from their record and ‘disregarded’. The legislation includes a statement on its purpose, that it acknowledges the “wrongfulness and discriminatory effect of past convictions for certain historical sexual offences”.

Gender equality

Gender inequality is wide ranging. We see it in the world of work, in the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. We see it in our family lives where women are more likely to take on caring roles such as looking after children or older family members. We see it in education where women and girls are under-represented in science, technology, engineering and maths.

The Equal Opportunities Committee published a report on Women and Work in 2013 which explored these issues. Other committees have also focused on gender inequality in work, such as the Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee’s report on the Gender Pay Gap in 2017, and the Local Government Committee’s report on Equal Pay in Local Government in 2009.

The Scottish Government has several actions in place, for example, it has:

We also see gender inequality in the violence against women and girls.

The Scottish Government’s current strategy on eradicating violence against women and girls – Equally Safe – views gender inequality as a root cause of such violence. The definition, based on a UN declaration on violence against women, sets out that ‘Gender based violence is a function of gender inequality, and an abuse of male power and privilege’. The violence can be physical, emotional, sexual or psychological. It also includes sexual harassment and bullying at work, and public or private spaces.

The Scottish Parliament has passed a range of legislation aimed at targeting violence against women and girls, for example, on domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriages and human trafficking.


The Scottish Government’s Race equality framework for Scotland set out the approach to promoting race equality and tackling racism and inequality between 2016 and 2030.

This has been followed up with an action plan for the period 2017-2021, setting out what needs to be achieved in the course of the current Parliament.

This is welcomed, but as mentioned above, the Scottish Parliament’s record on race equality has been criticised. The Equalities and Human Rights Committee recently took evidence on the Race Equality Framework. It heard that while there has been much positive rhetoric on race equality, there has been little progress in 20 years.


In 2006, session 2 of the Scottish Parliament, the Equal Opportunities Committee published its report on a wide-ranging inquiry on disability, covering access to work, education and leisure. The Scottish Executive responded positively to the report. In 2008, session 3 of the Scottish Parliament, the new Equal Opportunities Committee reviewed the progress made.

The work on disability was positive and well intentioned, but it’s not clear that it led to any significant change in the lives of disabled people in Scotland.

In 2016 the Scottish Government set out a Delivery Plan for disabled people, covering the period 2016-2021. This set out five ambitions for disabled people to live independent lives, improve their income, ensure accessibility, protect rights, and improve participation in public life.

The Scottish Parliament has a role in monitoring the progress of this delivery plan, whether in this parliamentary session, or early in the next one.

Human Rights

Equality and non-discrimination are core human rights principles. While there is distinction between equality and human rights, the two concepts interact and overlap.

The Scottish Parliament has overseen the establishment of two bodies charged with promoting and protecting human rights in Scotland: the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and the Scottish Human Rights Commission.

More recently, ‘human rights’ were added to the subject matter of the former Equal Opportunities Committee. This led the Committee to consider Parliament’s role in promoting and protecting human rights in Scotland. A further impetus was the changing landscape of human rights, and, in particular, the potential impact of Brexit. It led the Committee to call on the Parliament to be an international leader on human rights.

The Committee’s report coincided with a report from the First Minister’s Advisory Group on Human Rights Leadership which recommended legislation to create a new human rights framework in Scotland.

What is the reality today – is Scotland fairer?

This is a question asked by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The EHRC considers progress on equality and human rights in Scotland in areas such as work, education, living standards, health and justice. Their review published in 2018 shows that there are no simple answers. This followed two previous reviews in 2010 and 2015. While there is some evidence of progress, it is neither consistent nor widespread. The same problems and concerns previously highlighted remain.

“We acknowledge that effecting change requires a long-term commitment and it can take many years before any change is apparent. However, the evidence in this review suggests a general stagnation in progress. We need to recognise where, and question why, stagnation is happening.

The available evidence shows that women, disabled people, LGBT people, people from ethnic minority groups, and younger and older people experience the starkest inequalities, and that these cut across many areas of life.”

These are just a few of the findings of the review:

  • In 2016 to 2017 women earned on average £1.90 an hour less than men.
  • Women and men are segregated into different sectors of the economy, with women often working in the poorest paying sectors.
  • Disabled people are twice as likely to be without work and more likely to live in poverty.
  • Ethnic minority graduates are less likely than others to receive the highest level of degree, and less likely to go on to postgraduate study.
  • In 2016, 12% of all households with a person with a long-term physical, mental health condition or illness required adaptations to their home, a similar proportion as in the previous years.
  • Homophobic and religiously motivated crime continues to rise.
  • Disabled pupils are almost twice as likely to be excluded from school.

Diversity in the Scottish Parliament

The First Minister has endeavoured to ensure that the Scottish Cabinet has a gender balance, but the Scottish Parliament has a long way to go if it wants to be reflective of the society it represents.

While three of the five parties have been led by a woman in this parliamentary session, the reality is that, in terms of gender balance, little has changed in 20 years.

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The parliament currently has one openly disabled MSP, and two MSPs from an ethnic minority.

In contrast, the Scottish Parliament was, in 2016, described as the ‘gayest parliament in the world’.

To be truly representative in terms of gender, disability and race, there would need to be 65 women MSPs, 23 disabled MSPs, and 5 MSPs from an ethnic minority. This is something that political parties need to work on if they wish to ensure the Scottish Parliament represents people from diverse backgrounds.

The balance of representation is more positive when looking at the gender balance of committee conveners, where currently seven out of 15 committee conveners are women.

The Scottish Parliament could also do more on who it engages with. Hearing representative views is important, it can improve policy and legislative outcomes and provide further legitimacy. This could be achieved by working to improve the diversity of witnesses that committees hear from.

The future

The immediate future, in terms of equality, looks set to be dominated by the Scottish Government’s consultation on the draft Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill.

The aim of the draft Bill is to make it easier for trans people to legally change from male to female or female to male, reforming the current process which has been described as ‘intrusive, costly, humiliating and administratively burdensome’.

However, there are concerns that the outcome of reforms could have adverse consequences on women and girls, particularly in relation to women only spaces and services. This is despite existing protections for single-sex spaces and services in the Equality Act 2010.

If the Bill is introduced, the Scottish Parliament will need to ensure that it provides a fair hearing to a range of people with distinct views.


It is a little frustrating to look back over 20 years and see that, despite much progress, there is still so much to be done to achieve equality in Scotland.

Without a doubt, the Scottish Parliament and successive Scottish governments have made strong commitments in support of greater equality in Scotland. At times, Scotland has been a leading voice on promoting and advancing equality and human rights.

We know what the issues are, and the issues are not Scotland’s alone, but the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government must keep up the momentum to meet their commitments on equality for the people of Scotland.

Nicki Georghiou, Senior Researcher
Equality and Human Rights